New division, new players, but same results for Los Angeles Kings AHL pipeline

By Jason Lewis
Nick Ebert - Los Angeles Kings

Photo: Los Angeles Kings prospect Nick Ebert has offensive skills that could translate to the NHL level but needs to use his time in the AHL developing a better sense of when to make safe defensive plays (courtesy of David Sheehan)

‏After a big move from the east coast to the west coast, and a name change, not much else has changed. The newly-branded Ontario Reign are coming into this season as defending champions of the AHL, and they are playing like it early on. Part of the reason is that the Los Angeles Kings have a pretty loaded group of AHL prospects. While other systems may have a high amount of CHL or college prospects, most of the Kings’ picks from years past are now at the AHL level. Surprisingly though, only one of the players is a first round selection (Adrian Kempe).

The team is currently sporting the third best record in the AHL as of December 21 (15-4-2). They are a squad that is very reflective of their NHL counterpart: they score by committee, and they pride themselves on defense first. They have only two players currently in the top 50 in AHL scoring, and lead the AHL behind veteran goaltender Peter Budaj with a 1.85 goals against average per game.

‏As the NHL roster continues to call on some of the bigger name players like Michael Mersch, Derek Forbort, and Nick Ebert, it will be interesting to see where things go. For now, it has been a great start to the inaugural Ontario Reign season. Here are some individual player updates on the season thus far.

AHL

Nic Dowd, C, 25

‏The center is developing quite nicely but is one of the older players in the Kings’ pipeline due to his development path. If he is going to make a move for an NHL spot it will have to be soon. He is a clear step above many other players on the Reign in maturity and his thinking of the game. He is a cognizant player and has been played primarily with some of the Reign’s more powerful potential scorers – Kempe or Jonny Brodzinski. This, along with his strong playmaking abilities have put him up in third on the team in scoring and tied for first in assists with Sean Backman.

‏He is a forward capable of playing in all situations, and continues to show that in Ontario. Coach Mike Stothers uses him on the power play and penalty kill, along with giving him tough defensive-zone starts. His face-off ability is also an incredible asset.

Valentin Zykov, W, 20

‏While the rookie Russian is not necessarily blowing up the stats column, there are a lot of positives in his game. Zykov has a bullish attitude, an aggressive presence, and a dogged determination when it comes to the puck. That has led to eight points and four goals in 22 games for the winger. While there are still noted brain cramps away from the puck, he is a young player who is predictably learning from mistakes. He has a work ethic and some strong stick skills that will get him places in the future. His shot is good, and he can maneuver the puck in the proverbial phone booth at times. He is one of Ontario’s best forwards, and he has a ton of qualities that will endear him to coaches of both the AHL and NHL variety.

Adrian Kempe, W, 19

‏Kempe has looked exceptionally comfortable for a 19-year old playing in a professional league. That has to come from playing in the SHL as a teenager as well. He is by no means intimidated by the physicality or the speed and tight spaces of the game. He has 16 points in 21 games, currently playing alongside a combination of forwards like Backman, Kris Newbury, Brodzinski, and Dowd (the latter two more consistently). Right up front, Kempe’s biggest asset and strength this year has been his skating. He has a long and powerful stride that allows him to accelerate quickly with a good top speed. He is also very agile and can cut on a dime. He is, however, noticeably slim and trim compared to many other players. This is something that will improve as he grows physically with age. Kempe also shows an exceptional wrist shot and an above average snapshot. With good power and placement, it’s no surprise why he is one of Ontario’s most threatening forwards in 2015-16.

Kevin Gravel, D, 23

‏Once a fairly heavy defensive-leaning defenseman at St. Cloud State, Gravel has put together a nice offensive game to help elevate his status within the pipeline. He now comes across as a well-balanced defenseman who takes care of his own end first before jumping into the play. His overall improvement in skating has also allowed him to take more risks offensively without getting beat on the turnaround. Mike Stothers has been using Gravel in every situation, be it power play, penalty kill, or even 3-on-3 overtime as the lone defenseman. As of December 21, Gravel was second on the team among defensemen in scoring behind Vincent LoVerde with 10 points in 23 games. LoVerde, ironically, has taken a similar path in his development.

Jonny Brodzinski, RW, 22

‏”Snakebit” is certainly one way to describe Brodzinski’s season thus far with Ontario. He did not score for the first 17 games of the season, until finally finding the net in back to back games to start December. He probably also leads the Reign in hit posts on the season. For the most part, it seems like poor luck with the former NCAA standout. He has a great shot, finds himself in prime scoring position quite frequently, but has yet to bury some chances (sound familiar Kings fans?). There is a lot to like about his game, and the scoring will come around as he finds ways to get the puck on net.

Kurtis MacDermid, D, 21

‏He is probably one of the most under the radar defensemen in the Kings system. After a breakout overage season with Erie of the OHL in 2014-15, MacDermid has continued to play an all-around solid game in his first professional season. While he will not blow the doors off offensively, the rough and tumble blue liner has been quite good in his own end. He has a massive reach at 6’5” and is definitely a physically dominating defenseman. He is as close to a true shutdown defenseman that the Kings system currently has. That being said, there is some puck-moving potential there as well. In a system loaded with defenders, he has carved out a nice area on the 2nd/3rd pair of the Reign blueline group.

Justin Auger, W, 21

‏The massive 6’7” winger continues to be an intriguing blend of a player. While he is not exceptional at any one thing, he is a good, blue-collar forward. He presents little risk defensively, and actually utilizes his long reach well on attacking forwards. He has seen regular penalty-kill time with the Reign, and has chipped in five goals and 12 points on the season. He is still not as aggressive as he might be, despite his massive physical advantage. He skates well enough for this level, but is not overly impressive. If there were a current King player to compare him to, it has to be Dwight King. Auger has acted as the retrieval forward on a line with undersized forwards Sean Backman and Kris Newbury as of late. There is not a lot of offensive flash there, but he can be quite a handful in the offensive zone when he gets the puck.

Nick Ebert, D, 21

‏The “Mr. Irrelevant” titleholder from the 2012 NHL Draft has certainly come a long way from there. There are plenty of organizations that may now look at Ebert’s overall skill set and regret not taking a chance on him much higher up in the draft. He is an aggressive defenseman with plenty of confidence on the puck, and puck-moving ability, who can control moments of the game and make important plays. However, the book on Ebert has always been about when he decides to make those moves and how he executes. When the 21-year old has looked good in 2015-16 so far, he has looked very good. When he has been bad, it has been noticeably bad. Over-aggressive plays have led to odd-man rushes, and long shifts stuck in the defensive zone for his team. The arc of his season has been noteworthy, as he has become a more regular player on the Ontario back-six than he was earlier in the season. He still remains a pretty boom-bust style player though it is early in his career.

Zac Leslie, D, 21

‏Ontario has a ton of defensemen currently, so many that a healthy rotation of defenders like Ebert, Kevin Raine, and Leslie have funneled in and out of the lineup at different times. The excellent play of Ebert and Raine, however, has led to a limited amount of playing time for Zac Leslie. If Ebert’s style is described as night, Leslie’s play could be described as later that night. He has shown a willingness to jump up and join the rush and skate the puck, but his decision making has been somewhat questionable at times. While Mike Stothers has openly stated the team is looking for players to do that, there is a learning curve. Leslie is taking his lumps this season and has played just five games so far.

Andrew Crescenzi, C, 23

‏‘Cres’ may be low on the totem pole from an organizational standpoint, but it does not mean he is not playing sufficiently in that role. For a low risk center playing limited minutes, the 23-year old is not bad. Primarily a bottom six forward with Ontario, he has carved out a decent season so far of seven points in 22 games by playing a simple, physical game, that involves dumping, forechecking, and grinding opponents down. He is a massive guy, and definitely can use his body to his advantage. He is also fairly strong in faceoffs. Like most Ontario forwards, he has played in all situations this year. He lacks for skill and flash, but has been effective.

Patrik Bartosak, G, 22

‏The goaltender spent the beginning of the year on injured reserve, and has since been suspended indefinitely by the Kings due to his arrest on domestic violence charges.

Joel Lowry, LW, 24

‏Fresh off a two-year entry-level contract signed before the season started, Lowry has found himself somewhat lost in the shuffle of forward combinations. He has played only seven games in 2015-16 with Ontario. He has shown, at the least, a willingness to finish his checks and get in on the forecheck when the opportunity arises. Nevertheless, his playing time has been severely limited to spot games here and there and fourth-line minutes.

ECHL  (Manchester Monarchs)

Maxim Kitsyn, W, 23

‏Kitsyn has been about the most successful of the Kings three ECHL players. He has scored with relative regularity this year, netting 17 points in 26 games this season. He is also taking just around three shots a game, which is respectable. Kitsyn, like so many other players before him, just lacks the opportunity currently. The Reign have a lot of forwards and play a pretty heavy emphasis on defense first. The Russian is no stalwart in his own end, so playing time would almost certainly be limited in Ontario. The best thing for Kitsyn to do is to just keep on keeping on until he gets another shot to be back in the AHL. His time is running short though.

Alex Roach, D, 22

‏The big defenseman has yet to really put everything together in an impressive way, and he is also falling victim now to a numbers game in front of him. While his ECHL numbers are respectable, there has yet to be a spot for him on the AHL roster. Until then, Roach is relegated to biding his time in the ECHL with Manchester. Roach is currently third in scoring among defensemen on Manchester with 12 points in 25 games.

Alex Lintuniemi, D, 20

‏The young Finn has had a rough go of things thus far in his rookie pro season. He missed out on the Reign roster due to the depth at D, and has also missed significant time so far on the year due to an arm injury. He has played in just eight of the Monarchs 26 games, though he registered five assists in that span. News recently came out that he will miss the next 4-6 weeks with surgery on his wrist. It has not been the brightest of starts for the Kings 2014 2nd round selection.

 
Prospect of the Month
 
Spencer Watson - Los Angeles KingsWhile the Kings have an improving pool of CHL prospects, one of them got a mighty fine nod last month. Spencer Watson of the Kingston Frontenacs received an invite to the Team Canada U-20 WJC camp recently. The diminutive yet fiery forward has had a very powerful start to his 2015-16 season, scoring 32 points and 17 goals in 30 games. Watson has almost surpassed his 2014-15 goal total of 20 in 41 games in significantly less time. While there are still questions regarding his size and defensive capability, the offense is not in doubt whatsoever. Team Canada saw that, and gave him an opportunity of a lifetime. Although he was not part of the final roster, just to be in consideration is a great honor and should give the seventh-rounder confidence to finish his season in the positive way it started.